Headmaster's Study

St. Albans as Sacred Space

By Headmaster Jason Robinson
Remarks from the Annual Parent Dinner on February 5, 2020.

Good evening.

It’s a pleasure as always to stand before you tonight as the Headmaster of St. Albans.

I vividly recall this evening last year, delivering my first Parent Dinner remarks in the midst of a very complicated moment in the life of our school and the broader culture. I chose as my topic “Challenges and Opportunities Facing Boys Schools in the Era of the #MeToo Movement.” I recall walking up to the podium to deliver the speech and thinking to myself: “This is a rather ambitious topic for a new Headmaster still getting to know the community. Perhaps I should have chosen something safer—a simple, anodyne State of the School Address free of controversy and contention.”

But I delivered the talk I had prepared, with some doubt and trepidation about how parents would receive it. And I will never forget how warmly you embraced what I had to say. It was one of the most blessed moments for Olinda and me in our first year at the school, and I have carried the memory of that evening with me ever since. Together we found a way to talk about something of fundamental importance to us as a community. I said in my speech last year that “leadership is about knowing what time it is ... about preparing for and paying attention to moments of opportunity that allow us to ask new questions and see in new ways.” Together we found a way into a conversation about the education of our boys in a fraught and confusing time. We embraced with humility and deep introspection the questions being asked of men and male institutions. We resisted the temptation to engage in deflection, defensiveness, or triumphalism. And from this crucible—this existential moment for boys schools—we summoned an affirming vision of the redemptive, transforming grace that boys schools like St. Albans are capable of when we live up to the highest ideals of our mission, based on a moral, rather than a tribal, conception of brotherhood, grounded in care, conscience, and civility.

What I want to share with you this evening is in many ways a continuation, and a deepening, of the conversation we began twelve months ago ... and a bridge to the future we will build together.

In the weeks and months that followed my parent address last January, through discussions with you, our faculty, and alumni, through teaching a class this past fall, and through the always-uplifting experience of being present with our boys, I have continued to learn about the texture of St. Albans. My faith in the future of this school has continued to grow, and my sense of the work ahead of us has become clearer.

There have been many milestones along this journey. I recall one of them last spring, when a reporter was interviewing me about my speech on boys schools. I was reminded of a line from my remarks: “Boys schools can provide for boys what the women’s movement has long provided for girls: a safe space for the examination of masculinity in all its complexities and manifestations ...”

The interviewer asked me to say more about what I meant by this, by the use of the term “safe space” as applied to a boys school.

It was perhaps a bit of cultural appropriation on my part—the use of a term commonly heard in secular, progressive precincts to apply to the more traditional environment of an Episcopal boys school. This was not irreverence or provocation, but I did mean for the term “safe space” to create some cognitive dissonance, to confound assumptions, to jumble the familiar categories into which educational and cultural discourse tends to entrap itself, with progressives arrayed against traditionalists, liberals against conservatives, secularists against believers. Here at St. Albans, I argued, was an example of a school that transcends these categories, that embraces an aspirational rather than an ossified view of its traditions—a school that resists one dimensional ways of thinking about boys, about boys institutions, and about the world around us. Here we are committed to the exhilarating project of advancing a progressive vision for a traditional boys school. We embrace creative dualities, productive tensions, exciting juxtapositions—preservation and innovation, confidence and humility, faith and reason, deeply proud of who we are but committed to constant self-examination and openness to new possibilities, illuminated by the past but never hostage to it. As Walt Whitman famously asked: “Do I contradict myself. Very well, then. I contradict myself. (I am large. I contain multitudes.)”

My description of St. Albans as a “safe space” reflected these generative dualities—the beautifully confounding way in which we are always larger than we seem—larger in heart, more generous of spirit, embracing a multitude of seemingly opposing perspectives and possibilities, and believing that from these creative tensions—this refusal to be trapped in a narrow vision of ourselves and the world—we can create a mosaic of meaning, an inclusive unity, amidst the fragmentation and polarizations of our time. Always with humility. Always with a sense of how much remains to be done. Always, in Abraham Lincoln’s phrase, “with firmness in the right, as God gives us to see the right.”

How we achieve this delicate balance is a more complex, elusive question. There is something in the alchemy of St. Albans that produces this magical and unexpected composite of qualities.

As I have reflected on how best to describe our culture—and on my use of the term “safe space” in my speech last year—I have realized that I was really searching for another, more resonant term.

I think about the words I instinctively reach for when describing what is so special about this place—the transforming Grace at the heart of a St. Albans education, the redemptive moments of heart and humanity I see when our boys summon what is best in themselves and those around them, the sanctity of knowledge and relationships between teachers and students, the communion of love and learning we share in our classrooms, the Refectory, and the Little Sanctuary. The blessing it is to be part of this community, the gift it is to work with such amazing young men and families. The calling we feel to educate boys in such a special culture.

What I have realized is that by describing the school as a safe space, I was really gesturing towards something deeper, more profound, more luminous—the idea of our school as a “sacred space.” There is no idea more central to who we have been and who we can become.

There are so many possibilities we are exploring as we envision the future of our school. And I have come to believe that all of these possibilities will find their fullest expression if we think of them as elements of a powerful unifying idea: St. Albans as “a sacred space for all.”

As an Episcopal school, there are places and moments in the life of our community that are clearly marked off as “sacred”: chapel in the Little Sanctuary and the opening day of school, Lessons and Carols, our recent Martin Luther King Jr. Ceremony, and Commencement in the National Cathedral. And how blessed we are to have access to these places of worship and reflection.

But when I describe the school as a “sacred space” I am making an even more ambitious claim: that everything we do and everything we are at St. Albans unfolds within a larger spiritual ecology, a sacred landscape of meaning and possibility. Though we experience it in an especially moving and profound way in the Little Sanctuary, the sense that something sacred is happening in our school is not compartmentalized in just that structure or just those moments when we are engaged in overtly spiritual exercises.

And to press my claim one step further, it is by embracing this larger, more encompassing conception of the school as a sacred space that we are able to be a school of such creative, unifying dualities: able to affirm what is special and distinctive about our mission, while also remaining open to wider expanses of meaning and possibility. In a secular age where science and technology often set the terms of our discourse and horizons of meaning, talk of the sacred might seem anachronistic, mythical, and out of step with the forces of progress. But here at St. Albans, seeing school as a sacred space is a powerfully generative force, not an obstructive one. Our capacity to see our mission in sacred terms both grounds us and propels us, affirms us and transforms us.

It is often said that the Episcopal tradition approaches the complexities of life—and the human encounter with the sacred—by seeking a “via media” or a “middle way.” This posture enables us to be a “both/and” institution, not an “either/or” institution—to transcend false dichotomies and false choices, to show that many of the seemingly intractable problems and polarities of our time can be reconciled in a larger structure of meaning if we have the courage and vision to see them in a different way. We can be a school of both challenge and support, excellence and empathy, tradition and innovation. A boys school proud of its heritage, but thinking deeply and critically about the meaning of masculinity. An Episcopal school committed to its distinctive spiritual identity, while embracing the dignity of all persons, the diversity of human experience, and our common humanity.

In an age where technological and scientific progress coexists with much doubt, confusion, and a loss of faith in the capacity of our institutions to address our deepest challenges, I hope that St. Albans—by providing a “sacred space”—can offer to its students and families a restored sense of hope in the redemptive, transforming capacities of education.

I offer several stories to illustrate my point, which highlight three senses of the sacred at St. Albans.

Each fall I invite our youngest students, our C Formers, into the Headmaster’s Study for a tradition known as “Milk and Cookies with the Headmaster.” It’s a wonderful way for me to welcome students to our school and for me to get to know them as they are beginning their journey at St. Albans. I hope during our time together to teach them something about the history of our school; but as is so often the case, it is they who teach me about the soul and promise of this community.

We began with the boys seated on the floor of my office. One of them looked up at my bookcase and said: “Mr. Robinson, you have two copies of the same book on your shelf.” The book was Plato’s Republic, a text from my undergraduate education when I was a philosophy major. I thought the conversation would end there, but another boy said: “Mr. Robinson, isn’t Plato an Ancient Greek philosopher? I think maybe his teacher is famous too ...” Another boy chimed in: “Yes, I think his teacher was named Socrates.” I paused, somewhat in awe that a group of fourth graders was conversant with complex philosophical thinkers I did not encounter until I was a college student, and said: “Yes, that’s correct. And I’m impressed that you know that.” But it did not end there. Another boy chimed in: “I think maybe Plato taught someone famous as well ... was his name Aristotle?” By this point, I felt it was I who was the student receiving a philosophical tutorial from this group of intellectual prodigies.

And then they told me they were hungry and wanted to know where the milk and cookies were.

So what is the lesson I take from this endearing episode? What was so beautiful to me was watching these young boys display such earnest and unreserved love of learning, such joy in the life of the mind and the world of ideas. I saw this same quality in the Sixth Formers I was privileged to teach this past fall. From our youngest boys to our seniors, there is an abiding sense at St. Albans that the search for knowledge is a sacred, joyful pursuit to be valued as an intrinsic, rather than an instrumental, good for its inherent humanizing potential. I have never encountered a group of students—or an intellectual culture—more fully committed to these ideals. This group of cerebral C Formers who were impossibly literate about Ancient Greek philosophy were not displaying their erudition in a pretentious or self-promoting way. There was a purity and humility to their curiosity. And not a single boy ridiculed another one for knowing who Plato was or for caring about the intellectual lineage of these iconic thinkers in the Western intellectual tradition. There was a beautiful sense in that room that “this is who we are”: members of a community filled with reverence for the life of the mind, the world of ideas, and the sacredness of intellectual life.

These commitments are all the more important and in need of care because they are under increasing pressure in our culture from two different directions.

The first threat comes from a utilitarian, technocratic view of education that views phrases like “the life of the mind” with some suspicion, as an antiquated pursuit that must give way to more pragmatic considerations and measurable outcomes in an anxious age of technological transformation and economic uncertainty.

The second threat to liberal education is something that former New York University President John Sexton has written widely about. And there is a deep irony in his assessment of our current predicament as a society. For many centuries, it was religious institutions that promoted orthodoxy and discouraged dissent. But today, it is often those committed to a secular, progressive view of the world who elevate political viewpoints to the status of doctrinal truths, as articles of faith that cannot be questioned. I say this not to doubt the sincerity of those who espouse this position, but to reframe this as a moment of great opportunity for schools like St. Albans. Great schools, in President Sexton’s view, aspire to be counter-cultural institutions. They do so with an ecumenical commitment to reclaiming universities as “sacred spaces”—sacred not in the sense that certain things are off limits, but in the sense of providing a sanctuary where certain values and commitments are kept alive, where the love of learning, appreciation for nuance and complexity, intellectual humility, impatience with orthodoxy, and willingness to subject one’s most cherished beliefs to a rigorous contest of ideas can still flourish. By embracing this idea of the school as a “sacred space,” we enlarge, rather than narrow, our intellectual life. This is one sense of the sacred we aspire to actualize in the lives of our boys.

After the C Formers finished educating me about Plato and Aristotle, we went next door for milk and cookies. Predictable chaos ensued, with cookies and milk spilling on the floor, and the boys showing that, despite their erudition, they are still very much fourth-grade boys. Soon their teacher came to collect them. And as they were leaving my office, they all shook my hand and thanked me. I thought all the boys had left but turned around to find that one boy had remained behind. He was quietly cleaning up the room and putting all the chairs back in place—not because anyone had asked him to, not because he thought someone was watching, but because it was simply who he was. I asked him his name. I thanked him for his kindness and thoughtfulness. He looked at me, with such humility and sincerity, and said: “Of course, Mr. Robinson. It’s an honor to go to school here. I want to take care of this place. I want to be a good person. I want to be worthy of what this school is teaching me and giving me.”

This was a poignant reminder that the boys see our school—and the privilege of being here—as something sacred. The very physical location of our campus deepens these sentiments. We are surrounded each day by reminders of ideals and causes larger than ourselves: the Washington National Cathedral and the inspiring view from the top of our campus down to the nation’s Capital. To paraphrase a line from the musical, Hamilton: “What are the odds that God put us all in this blessed spot?” This is the second sense of the sacred I discern in our community. Our boys know that something of deep and lasting importance is at stake in their education—something that calls them to be the best version of themselves, and to treat their school and one another with a respect and dignity commensurate with the sacred importance we attach to our mission.

In the span of forty-five minutes with the C Formers, I felt I had seen the entire expanse of our school’s promise, the fullness of our ideals and aspirations, reflected in these two encounters: the inspiring intellectual curiosity and love of learning the boys displayed, and the deep humanity of which they are capable when they are at their best. Such an experience would be inspiring for any educator. But for me, saying that the experience was moving or touching did not quite capture the fullness of what I had seen. It required a different vocabulary, a different sensibility. These were moments of Grace, reflections of our school as a “sacred space.”

One of the issues that has afflicted educational institutions in recent years is the sense that principles of intellectual freedom and respect for the feelings of others are somehow in conflict. At St. Albans, there is a real effort to see these principles as part of a larger unity, bound together by the conviction that love of knowledge and love for others are sacred obligations that rest on the same moral and spiritual foundation. The Greeks had a number of different words to describe the idea of “love.” Philosophia was the love of wisdom and knowledge. Agape was the love and respect we accord to others based on our common humanity. Part of what makes St. Albans a sacred space is our aspiration to live in the grace of these two forms of love.

But what about the concern, some might object, that thinking of a school as a “sacred space” sounds a bit self-important? Might it lead to complacency? To a sense of the school’s “separateness”—and thus to a narrowing of the school’s mission? If St. Albans aspires to be less insular, as I have argued we should, does the image of the school as a “sacred space” lead to a message of exclusivity, rather than inclusivity, and thus impede our ability to grow as an institution?

It is a reasonable question. Many of you have shared with me that what distinguishes St. Albans is the clarity of our mission, the distinctiveness of our culture, the sense that we offer our boys an experience of being part of something different, something special. There is a “singularity” to our culture that is enormously compelling. Paul Herman famously used to say: “We just don’t do that here.” What it means to be “here” is that we do things in a certain way—and this certain way is different, demanding, uncompromising in the claims it makes upon us. It strikes me that part of the enduring appeal of St. Albans is that we have the courage, or perhaps the temerity, to say: “We do not pretend to have all the answers or to be all things to all people. But we do begin each conversation within a tradition, within a clear moral framework, with a sense of ultimate purpose about what matters to us and why. In a world where the center seems unable to hold, a world going through disorienting changes often in the absence of a unifying framework to help us make sense of them, one of the great gifts we offer our students and families is a sense of place, of purpose, of meaning, of groundedness in an unmoored age.

But how do we honor the sense of place and purpose created by our singularity, without having it lead to insularity? The way we square this circle—finding a “via media” that enables us to be a “both/and” institution—takes us back to the idea of the school as a “sacred space” and the third and final sense of the sacred that exists at St. Albans.

We were gathered in the Washington National Cathedral about two weeks ago for a special coordinate assembly with NCS in honor of the Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr., Holiday. The Rev. Canon Leonard Hamlin spoke from the Canterbury Pulpit, the same pulpit that Martin Luther King himself delivered his final sermon from before his death. We were surrounded by history. Surrounded by symbols of the sacred. Filled with a sense of the privilege it is to be part of a school where moments like this are possible. Reminded of what is sacred and distinctive about our community. But not in the service of separatism or triumphalism, but in the service of a more universal, ecumenical ideal. The song we sang on that day was not an anthem of complacency but, appropriately enough, a song that called us beyond ourselves: “Lift Every Voice.”

And what I realized in that moment is the luminous paradox at the heart of our school: It is by living in a community of moral particularity, a “sacred space” bound together by shared values and commitments, that we find our way to wider horizons of aspiration and possibility. At St. Albans, tradition and transformation are not opposing forces, but are two parts of the same process. A school that is a sacred space simultaneously draws us inward and propels us outward. It gives us a secure place to stand in an insecure world and is also a place of transforming grace that enlarges our sense of the possible, that expands the scope of our concern, that liberates us to speak about the deepest spiritual meaning and significance of our work.

One of the most beautiful hymns we sing in the Little Sanctuary is “O God, our help in ages past, our hope for years to come.” The link between our past and our future, between who we have been and who we aspire to become, comes from the conviction that something sacred is at work in our lives, both supporting us and challenging us, blessing us and afflicting our consciences, drawing us into communion with one another and lifting our gaze beyond ourselves.

As many of you know, we created a bound volume of all the chapel talks given last year in the Little Sanctuary. The book was appropriately titled Grace, and indeed every moment I have experienced in that sacred space has been a gift of Grace for me as the Headmaster of the school. In one especially memorable chapel talk, a member of last year’s senior class quoted a line from Shakespeare’s Hamlet: “Lord, we know what we are, but know not what we may be. God be at your table.”

As we look towards our future as an institution, filled with expectation about what we can be, I think often of the blessing it is to be part of a school where words and ideas are viewed with reverence—where chapel talks in the Little Sanctuary have our boys wrestling with Shakespeare, Socrates, and the Sermon on the Mount—and where all of this is in service to the question “Who are we becoming?” both as individuals and as a community.

What a gift it is to be at a school where we have the freedom and the language to give voice to the fullest range of our humanity, to our deepest spiritual and moral yearnings, to the sense that there is something sacred always present in our work. May God Be at Our Table.
Located in Washington D.C.,  St. Albans School is a private, all boys day and boarding school. For more than a century, St. Albans has offered a distinctive educational experience for young men in grades 4 through 12. While our students reach exceptional academic goals and exhibit first-rate athletic and artistic achievements, as an Episcopal school we place equal emphasis upon moral and spiritual education.